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Return of the Smoking Jacket

The Venerable Old Smoking Jacket Has a Place in the Gentleman's Wardrobe
G. Bruce Boyer
From the Print Edition:
John Travolta, Jan/Feb 99

(continued from page 1)

Logsdail is quite correct to emphasize "traditional" in this context. There's an undeniably retro elegance to a smoking jacket that hearkens back to a time when personal pleasures were taken seriously. What we learn from C. Willett Cunnington's Handbook of English Costume in the 19th Century is that the smoking jacket, which looked exactly as it does today, has been around for 150 years. Well, make that since 1852, since that's the year of Cunningham's first reference to the garment:

"A kind of short robe de chambre, of velvet, cashmere, plush, merino, or printed flannel; lined with bright colors, ornamented with brandenbourgs, olives, or large buttons." --The Gentleman's Magazine.

Brandenbourgs in this case are the braided loop closing (now called frogs), and olives are woven buttons so shaped.

The smoking jacket finds its antecedents in the robes de chambre (dressing gown, robe, housecoat, bathrobe--call it what you will) that wealthy Englishmen imported from the East to wear as at-home outfits.

Penelope Byrde, in The Male Image: Men's Fashion in England 1300-1970, traces this attire to the beginning of the sixteenth century, when trade with the East began to bring luxuries to northern Europe. Tobacco (both Virginian and Turkish), coffee, tea, chocolate, silks and spices were all flowing north. By the mid-seventeenth century, these robes, made of fine silk, were held in such high esteem that it was fashionable to have one's picture painted wearing one. Samuel Pepys, famous for his wonderfully informative diary, was only a civil servant and could not afford one, so he rented one to sit for his portrait:

Thence home and eat one mouthful, and so to Hale's and there sat till almost quite dark upon working my gowne, which I hired to be drawn [in] it--an Indian gown, and I do see all the reason to expect a most excellent picture of it. --Diary, 30 March 1666

This tradition of wearing a comfortable robe at home--usually with a soft dressing cap and Persian slippers--was observed until the 1850s, when the smoking jacket took its place. Smoking, Byrde tells us, became very popular during the Crimean War (1853-1856), when Turkish tobacco became readily available in Europe.

The well-decorated Victorian house now often contained a moking room. This was a convenient place for a gentleman and his friends (males only) to retire for good cigars, brandy, political talk, and perhaps a little risqué banter. The Edwardian novelist and biographer E. F. Benson recalled such an evening at a country house party:

After the hostess and the other ladies had bid goodnight to their husbands, most of the men changed their evening coats for smoking jackets, though one or two did not bother to do this, but went as they were into the smoking room, where presently the others joined them, wearing their braided and frogged habiliments. Lord Buryan made a more complete change and appeared in a suit of ruby-coloured velvet. --As We Are

That Lord Buryan had a complete smoking suit surprises us, but in the second half of the nineteenth century the smoking wardrobe was considerable. To quote costume and social historian Pearl Binder:


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